It all started in 1867 when David McCollum Smith named his first son “Leonidas,” giving him a weighty label, then always addressed his son as “Lonnie.”
The weight got heavier, when Lonnie had a son in 1906, he and Blanche named him Leonidas Constantine Smith , Junior, but addressed him as “L.C.”
Well, you get the drift. In August, 1942, after losing their first son “Thomas” at birth ten years before, L.C. and Virginia Smith thought I was healthy enough to bear the name Leonidas Constantine Smith III. I was delighted that they decided to call me “Leon.”
Maybe it was when the movie, 300, came out that I learned my namesake, Leonidas , had been a King of Sparta. Sometime before that I came to realize that Constantine was the first Christian emperor of Rome. But the heroic connotations of these names threatened my desire to remain anonymous. Let me explain.
As a boy, I liked bib overalls. At 5 or 6 years old, I overheard my Aunt Dilly and Mama talking about me, so I gave a close ear to the conversation.
“Look at Leon,” Aunt Dilly said. “He’s all slumped-over. Do you reckon the suspenders on his ovealls are pulling him down?”
Mama looked over at me. “I don’t know,” she said. “But he is slumping.”
“He might grow up that way,” Aunt Dilly said.
Mama must have agreed, for after that day I did not wear overalls again. But my reason for slumping had nothing to do with Red Camel or Oshkosh, by gosh. I slumped to show humility, perhaps because I thought that was the thing to do, or more likely, a way to avoid drawing attention, being called out, and made to stand out in public, or to do something else a shy kid didn’t want to do.
To me the ideal name was one you could hide behind— a disguise, like the one I discovered much later on a can of “potted possum” which I bought at a store on the road to Myrtle Beach, and in the process learned that the stuff in the can was actually better than the label said, for it was not really potted possum at all, but potted meat, better quality stuff from spare parts of more edible sources.
At this point I feel the need to chase a possum… or at least a connotation or two. My childhood friend, W.A., was better than his initials. I wondered why he just used them, until the elementary school grapevine asserted that “W.A.” actually stood for “Western Auto.”
W.A. and I talked a lot on the school yard, he was a gentle and firm friend, so I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but I did want to know the truth. So at recess one day, out of earshot of the other kids, I broached the subject .
“W.A.,” I said, “What does your name stand for?” I paused.
“Some of the kids say it stands for ‘Western Auto.’ “
W.A. took a drink of water from the outdoor fountain, then answered with maturity and grace uncommon in a sixth grader.
“At my other school,” he said, “I had two records; one under Wayne Autry and the other under Western Auto.”
I never mentioned “Western Auto” again. But the next time the grape vine rustled, I said, “W.A. has two records at his other school. One of them is Wayne Autry.”
I knew a girl once, bright and pretty, whose name I could never forget, for her parents decided that “Robin” would go quite well with “Hood.” Her given name never seemed to bother her, nor was there any reason that it should, for ”Robin Hood” was a well-loved character in legend, and our Robin was a well -loved character in fact.
This has been a long possum trot to get to the place where I can say : words have denotations, which give a name to something. They also have connotations, which make up the web of associations which surround words. Some names gain extra connotations by their similarity to other less desirable ones.
I had a 32nd-degree cousin with the name Billy Biles, which I altered to “Billy Bowels.” Ossie, who I knew In grad school, had a name which required no such tweaking. I read that name from his transcript on the secretary’s desk, chuckled, then walked in to tell my office mate the news.
“Hey Joe,” I said.
“Do you know what Ossie’s real name is?”
It’s Askhold. “
My office buddy did not laugh. I don’t think he knew that Askhold was a prince of Kiev, and founder of the Viking state in Dnieper, Russia, but he did know that a younger Askhold had just entered the secretary’s office and was standing just outside our office door as I spoke.
I had two options, to seek anonymity in the wood work, or to stand up and apologize for my misdeed. I took the physically possible option, then a deep breath, then walked out the door, and spoke to Ossie.
“You heard what I said, didn’t you, Ossie? “
“I am so sorry.”
“It’s OK,” he smiled. He paused, then said, “That’s why I go by ‘Ossie.’ With a name like ‘Askhold ‘ you know someone will find out … then call you one.”
“I hope you will forgive me.”
“I already have.”
I once thought that the rarity of “Leon Smith” provided protection , but a search of the net finds hundreds of us. And the identity of “Leonidas Smith [Constantine]”is no secret, either. I located my name in a free site which correctly lists the town I live in and the car that I drive, but overestimates my income , perhaps with cash flow from the non-existent Smith’s Car Wash. You can even find my criminal record if you’re ready to spend the nineteen bucks, but I’ll save you the trouble: “Speeding,” several counts, over many years, some kindly lowered to “Improper Equipment,” with the assistance of a lawyer. “Failure to see that a proper move could me made” with the help of the Highway Patrolman whose bumper I whacked while backing up in the parking lot of the old Highway 74 Drive-In Grill in 1961.
The problem with my name has always been the pressure it puts on me to excel, as the real Leonidas did at Thermopylae. I stayed under the radar when I lived in Polkton , where I was known as ” Leon” or ”Smitty.” But when I went to college, not one of the learned teachers knew “Leon” and they struggled with the pronunciation of “Leonidas,” causing me to cringe like Ossie at the undesired attention I got when they called the roll.
“Leondas Smith,” they called. “Leondias Smith,” or “Le o nee das Smith, in appropriate pronunciation of the Greek. I was so embarrassed that I began interrupting my teachers at the “ Le-“ to call out “Leon Smith, sir,” before the teacher could verbalize the rest of my name.
I carried that anxiety for a long time. Then, I decided to give up the belts which had held up my pants for forty years , partly because they would no longer do so, but more probably because I finally gave myself permission to take back the suspenders of my youth, because I had become brave enough to get out in the open a bit.
Ten years later, after I had re-considered” Leonidas,” I began to see the wisdom shown by the three generations of Smiths who tagged their first surviving sons with it, because that the name is a noble one, like its namesake, and that name provides a kid room to grow, if he can get past the embarrassment of not measuring up to it for several decades.
So what did I do, in 1970, when time came to name my firstborn son? At 28 years old, I was still not at all sure I could ever measure up to my given name, so Patsy and I chose the name of the writer of the second Gospel for him, and laid Leonidas Constantine aside. The ensuing years have proven he could have proudly born up under the weight of living with Leonidas.
I am finally attempting to do so the same for myself.
Leon Smith is a contributing columnist for The Anson Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 124 Marshville NC 28103.